Most restaurants take some time to get rolling. They have to work out early issues, train staff, fine-tune recipes and most important, define a culinary identity, which is why food critics don't tend to visit high-profile restaurants in their first month, and they don't publish a review, ideally, for a few weeks more.
Flora Street Cafe is more ambitious than most Dallas restaurants, and it perhaps understandably required a lot longer to grow into its mature self. Our initial review took place during some of the worst growing pains: erratic execution, sporadic service, unbalanced cocktails, a line cook taking cell phone pictures of food coming out of the open kitchen.
Luckily for Dallas, that phase is over now. Flora Street Cafe is meeting the hype.
A recent visit showed the restaurant hasn't changed its core philosophy of ambitious, modern-edged interpretations of Texas food and ingredients from Mexico and Latin America. But they have experience with the style now; the seasonal focus is a little more dialed in, plates with multiple components are better-balanced and more harmonious, and the dishes are being executed at a consistent standard.
Highlights of a recent meal included a smoky, richly textured potato and leek soup with a garnish of “chapulin-spiced foie gras” ($19; and chapulines are grasshoppers, by the way). Another killer appetizer: a lamb belly so tender inside and crispy on the edges that it seemed like it had come from the next generation of futuristic grills ($19). Next to that lamb, a huarache, the Mexican fried masa base shaped like and named after a sandal, with avocado mixed into the dough and fresh rhubarb on top. Both belly and huarache were dotted with a creamy salsa verde.
Now, this is a good place to stop and note a key reason Flora Street Cafe works so well. That dish required three sentences of fussy description, but eating it, you don’t feel that complexity so much. Instead, the lamb belly mostly tastes like unusually delicious lamb, and the huarache is a bright spring rhubarb salad with gentle crunch at the base. The kitchen here works in unusual techniques and manipulation of ingredients (like freeze-drying or powdering), but they make sure that the results cohere rather than clash.
That same principle is at work when the thinly sliced smoked octopus appears topped with tiny little cubes that turn out to be freeze-dried papaya ($22). It’s a way of adding both textural contrast and a hint of sweetness to complement the smoke.
Another lesson Flora Street has taken to heart: not everything has to be complicated. Seafood mains tend to be seared and fork-tender, with a clutch of fresh vegetables — stop by now and you might be rewarded with morel mushrooms. The star of the venison dish ($62) turns out to be an excellent portion of grits, with house-made kale pesto mixed in. I may try that trick at home.
There’s still room to grow. My beef tartare tasted good ($19), but it was loaded up with so many capers and pickled peppers that it didn’t much taste like beef. A meal here still lasts three hours, in part because you’re supposed to relax and enjoy the experience (good), but in part because that relaxation is occasionally enforced by a long wait between sitting down and seeing the menu (good if you're not hungry yet). The website, in case you want to investigate, still lists an old menu from December.
Still, it’s exciting that this high-flying and high-priced restaurant has found its groove. Great things are afoot at Flora Street Cafe. Of course, just about every other critic in town reported that last year — but we were hoping the restaurant could kick it into an even higher gear. And we were right.
Stephan Pyles Flora Street Cafe, 2330 Flora St.
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